Taught masters degrees are one award but with many rules

Shaun Le Boutillier and Harvey Woolf present research showing the wide variation in postgraduate taught assessment and course design across UK institutions

Shaun Le Boutillier is an Academic Performance Strategist and Principal Lecturer in Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University

Harvey Woolf is an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Wolverhampton

As Wonkhe has pointed out repeatedly, in recent years we have witnessed a substantial growth in the number of students enrolling on taught masters courses at UK universities.

Registrations in the UK have almost doubled, increasing from 400,000 in 2015–16 to just over 700,000 in 2021–22 The rise in numbers has been linked to the introduction of the postgraduate taught loans scheme in the UK in 2015–16 and changes to the visa requirements for international students since 2021. Although government policy may reverse the number of international students recruited, the significance of the taught masters course for UK institutions is likely to remain high.

But are taught masters courses in the UK equivalent in their design and assessment regulations?

Little in common

A recent survey by the Student Assessment and Classification Working Group (SACWG) suggests that when it comes to assessment regulations, UK institutions play by many different rules. The survey – which you can read more about in our recent article for the journal Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education – captured information about the assessment rules and regulations of 21 higher education institutions.

While small, it reflected the makeup of the UK sector reasonably well. It included a cross-section, evenly split between pre- and post-1992 institutions and members of various mission groups. Three salient areas of comparison stood out: the design of an award, the achievement of an award, and the classification of an award.

We found that, aside from the requirement that a taught masters course should consist of 180 credits, HEIs have little in common concerning the design of taught masters awards. The most obvious variant is the use of different-sized modules and credit denominators. Module sizes of 5, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, 40, 45, 60, 80, 90 and 120 credits were used for specific design purposes.

Disparities also existed around the requirement for, and the length of, the major project or dissertation. Indeed, the maximum length of a 60-credit dissertation ranged from under 10,000 up to 20,000 words. And there was also no common ground for the absolute time allowed for students to complete a masters course: some institutions restricted this to one year, one did not have a limit, while the others ranged between two and six years.

Quite an achievement

Rules surrounding the achievement of an award are just as murky. A third of the sample allowed undergraduate credit to be included in the programme while two thirds did not. Similar proportions set the module pass mark at 40 per cent and 50 per cent.

And the apparent simplicity of passing is complicated by additional hurdles, such as achieving a minimum mark in all assessments, submitting all assessments, or satisfying an attendance requirement. Institutions set very different conditions for allowing or not allowing compensation or condonement of failed marks: approximately half compensate, half condone, and some both compensate and condone. And there are varied and often obscure rules about the circumstances in which these practices operate.

Rules for classifying awards, or the issue of degree classification algorithms (DCA), were just as multifarious for masters awards as elsewhere. While there may be near uniformity in the use of terms and mark thresholds to describe performance – pass (40 or 50 per cent), merit (60 per cent), and distinction (70 per cent) – there is very little togetherness in the sector. A sizable minority of institutions continue to discount credits from their DCA, privilege the dissertation mark, or permit classification borderlines of various breadths.

And this of course brings us back to the lack of agreement on what should constitute the pass category. Should it be 40 per cent or 50 per cent?

Overcoming differences

The differences revealed by the survey were numerous. In an attempt to understand whether there could be any common ground across the sector, SACWG held a seminar that focused on the key principles for the design, achievement, and classification of taught masters awards. The seminar included participants from 40 institutions.

In the first part of the seminar, participants discussed and sought to explain the survey results. This provided the groundwork for the second session which took the form of a thought experiment. Delegates were asked to set aside the rules used by their institution and to find commonality on a set of principles on which to base assessment regulations. Not only were the outcomes positive, but there was also an unexpected level of accord among delegates around several key principles. This included agreement on: rules for reassessment, a universal adoption of a 50 per cent pass mark, and a stricter use of Level 7 credit.

While differences between delegates and groups remained for some issues, such as compensation rules, it was apparent that delegates wanted to engage in an open dialogue and wished to understand the rationale for the adoption or rejection of certain assessment principles in a given context. What seemed fundamental was to find agreement in principle.

Moving out of the murk

Our survey revealed disparities in the use and application of assessment regulations across the board. This, in turn, raises questions about equity. Could the same performance at one institution have a different award or outcome at another institution? The most glaring difference for taught masters courses is the module pass mark or award boundary.

And, like so many of the differences in assessment regulations, there is little understanding of why one rule is used rather than another.

The discussions at our seminar suggested there is a way to find some common ground and create open dialogue. One method of achieving this may be in the form of a working paper on assessment rules. This would involve consultation and dialogue from those engaged in teaching and quality-assuring masters courses. Establishing dialogue and shared reasoning might shore up advice and guidance to providers, perhaps by adding to what is currently available in documents such as the QAA Characteristics Statements: Master’s Degree.

This will benefit designers and developers of masters courses and it will enhance the external examiner process. In the meantime, we should not assume that all taught masters courses are equivalent.

3 responses to “Taught masters degrees are one award but with many rules

  1. Aren’t there substantial differences by disciplines? This, masters in business administration may be relatively similar, but substantially different from masters of laws.

  2. Thanks. Assessment has always been a murky area. Comparative judgement, perhaps even as evidenced in the workshop session you held, is one valid approach. I’d be interested in the discussion extending to PhD theses as well, for which the rules are even vaguer.

  3. Having taught at several UK universities , this applies just as much at UG level and even within the same institution; ‘Could the same performance at one institution have a different award or outcome at another institution?’

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